Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

One of the more interesting things Steven Moffat has said about Doctor Who – one of the things that’s informed my own thinking about the programme, and what I expect from it – came in 2014, as part of the promotion for Capaldi’s first series. Moffat, talking about Danny Pink’s role as a foil to the Doctor, as well as Robot of Sherwood, “a high-born nobleman, used to wealth and privilege, who decided to come down among us lot and help out. He thinks he’s one of the guys, but never stops assuming that he’s in charge and that people will make him tea”.

Since I read that, and indeed across the Capaldi era and some of the more frustrating aspects of Whittaker’s opening series, it’s struck me as one of the more compelling points of tension to the character. (Actually, it could perhaps be a particularly compelling lens to approach Series 11 from, given Whittaker’s Doctor seems less inclined to take charge of a situation in the way her predecessors would – how much of that is down to an evolving position on the Doctor as an autocrat, can it simply be ascribed to her gender, is there anything more engaging to consider beyond dismissing it as the limitations of Chibnall’s writing? Admittedly, the answer to that last question might just be “no”, but you know.)

It was on my mind again watching Planet of the Dead, in case that weren’t already clear. The quote often feels particularly applicable to Tennant’s Doctor, actually – much as I do genuinely love this take on the character, and much as I am willing to defend it to its detractors – but it seems especially relevant to Planet of the Dead. Not because of any egregious excesses on the part of the Doctor here (this episode is, for the most part, an almost self consciously ‘business as usual’ piece, very much the light episode that comes at the start of a series), but his almost-companion this episode: Lady Christina.

Christina is embarrassing, frankly. There was something more than a little uncomfortable about the bourgeoise cat burglar, from Michelle Ryan’s cloyingly self-satisfied performance (which, in fairness, is exactly the right way to pitch the character) to her dismissive jokes about the other characters, and indeed the still-recent financial crash. One imagines the latter would’ve played somewhat worse in 2009, but even now it’s hardly endearing.

What’s embarrassing, though, isn’t simply that the character is so obnoxiously, so aggressively bourgeoisie – rather, it’s embarrassing to see Doctor Who hold this character up as a perfect foil to the Doctor. More than that: the ideal companion.

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If Planet of the Dead can be said to have any particular throughline – and it is, otherwise, a remarkably slight affair – it’s how the episode parallels the Doctor and Christina.

It’s far from subtle, certainly: she’s a Lady and he’s a Time Lord; they’re both always prepared for any eventuality, both always looking for adventure; he’s a thief just like her, revealing I think for the first time in the new series that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. The point is screamingly obvious – they were made for each other, as the dialogue even declares. It’s hardly unique to this episode; as a way to introduce a new companion, overtly paralleling them with the Doctor is one of the more obvious options to pursue. (Indeed, it’s why I spent most of Series 11 caught between surprise and relief that Chibnall never really drove home the Yaz-is-a-policewoman/the-Doctor-lives-in-a-police-box angle.) The last time Davies introduced a companion as an almost-Doctor figure (he tended to be less fond of it than Moffat), though, it was Martha – a resourceful medical student, a character as clearly from the Doctor’s same sci-fi milieu as Rose was separate from it. There’s something a little similar to Lady Christina – she does, arguably, trade on a lot of adventure fiction staples that recur throughout Doctor Who – but there’s a vast difference between Martha-as-perfect-companion and Christina-as-perfect-companion. (Perhaps particularly considering how obviously attracted the Doctor is to Christina, and how he very much wasn’t to Martha.)

Another version of this story wouldn’t have been quite so positive about Lady Christina; there’s a version of this story, a more interesting one I suspect, that uses the parallels as a way to complicate the Doctor, to question his privilege and to question his actions. It’s the sort of story Tennant’s Doctor might have benefitted from, and surely would’ve fit well within the examination of his hubris and arrogance that forms the bulk of this gap year. (Or, at least, I recall forming the bulk of the gap year; Planet of the Dead, and indeed Waters of Mars, are quite plausibly the episodes I’ve rewatched least.) It also, of course, very much isn’t the sort of story I’d expect Gareth Roberts to write; openly bigoted and openly conservative (and openly Conservative, insofar as that can’t be assumed already), one struggles to imagine him writing an episode that questions the Doctor along those lines. (Davies, for his part, probably would be more inclined too, but he’s much too enamoured with the aesthetic of the rich cat burglar to actually do it – and, I suspect at this point, basically content with having a comparatively throwaway victory lap episode that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.)

No, instead the point is to show that the Doctor, despite meeting the perfect companion, turns her down. It’s a story about how much he’s struggling after losing Donna; it’s about the deliberate refusal for Planet of the Dead to be the first episode of Series 5, turning down the prospect of thirteen episodes with Lady Christina.

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Christina, of course, is the wrong character to tell this story with. It’s difficult not to think it might be considerably more effective with another Lynda-with-a-y type character in Christina’s place, someone closer to the Tracy Flick type envisaged as an alternative to Christina. The version of Planet of the Dead that sees the Doctor reject, you know, Daisy Evans, or a similarly botanically named character, would likely go a long way towards underscoring the actual point of the episode.

Granted, it’s likely just a personal thing – my own general disinclination towards a character like Lady Christina, and the sort of self-critique I’d like to see Doctor Who occasionally offer. (As an aside, though, I’m largely convinced that Michelle Ryan thinks you’re supposed to dislike Christina too; the way she delivers the line about getting people-dust in her hair is markedly different to how Catherine Tate might have read a similar line, part of a wider disinterest in making Christina especially sympathetic.) It’s not difficult to imagine people liking this episode, and liking Lady Christina – if Big Finish is anything to go by, there’s apparently a market for a Lady Christina spin-off, so. Maybe there’s an appeal to the character I just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, though, I’d still maintain that Daisy Evans is the better character for a story like this – if the point is to shut down Tennant’s next series, to deconstruct the conventional opening episode we’ve become so used to, a character more straightforwardly evocative of previous companions is likely the more effective way to demonstrate that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a version of this episode that’s much more obviously structured as such; there’s potential, for example, to introduce Daisy’s version of Jackie or Mickey on the bus alongside her, the life she’s forced to go back to after seeing her first alien planet, her first alien species. That, surely, is an episode that’s much more important to the broader interrogation of the idea of the Doctor alone.

As an episode, this story is altogether less ambitious than the series openers it models itself upon – showy and arrogant, a programme so convinced of its own strengths that it doesn’t actually get around to displaying any of them. Planet of the Dead amounts to little more than a shrug, in the end; if this is the beginning to the end for the Tennant era, it’s also the most obvious indicator that there’s nowhere left to go.

4/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

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Time Lord, Tardis, enemy of the Cybermen. The one and the only.

Divorced from its original context, The Next Doctor is something of an odd beast.

It’s meant to be read, of course, in terms of the Tennant era winding down and Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on the horizon – not that we knew quite yet, when this aired, that Matt Smith would be the next Doctor, but the announcement wasn’t far off. The episode is playing on that speculation, brazenly invoking that paratextual resonance and running with it. Was the episode title teased at the end of Journey’s End? I forget, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I’m fairly sure it was – and at the height of the Davies’ era’s popularity, it must have been quite something.

I, admittedly, don’t actually entirely remember the experience of watching this one particularly well. The subsequent Matt Smith announcement, a week and a half or so later, I remember quite well – I decided, fairly impromptu at the start of the special as it discussed a few rumoured candidates, that I wanted Matt Smith to be the Doctor, basically on the basis that he’d been in the Sally Lockhart show previously. Not that I’d watched it, of course, but I’d read the books and that was… enough to decide he’d be a good choice for the role, at the time. I was pleased when Matt was announced, anyway. (It was a few weeks later when a friend of mine tried to get me to sign his petition calling for Matt Smith to be fired and David Tennant to stay on. I think the suggestion was that Smith was too emo. I didn’t sign it, is the main thing.)

But, as I was saying, I don’t remember a lot of the build-up. How invested was I in the idea of David Morrissey as the Doctor? Not a clue. (Though I do recall very pedantically correcting a lot of people in the months after the special, explaining that the next Doctor was Matt Smith and not David Morrissey. Of course now, a decade older and a decade more mature, I would still maintain that’s entirely justifiable pedantry.) I was, I think, probably very excited by the idea of the Cybermen – moreso than I was now, I’ve cooled on them considerably over the years.

Ten years on, anyway, it’s harder to appreciate the episode in its original context – we know that David Morrissey wasn’t the Eleventh Doctor, and we know how the Tennant era eventually concluded. So does it still stand up outside of that context?

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The answer, I think, is sort of.

It’s a good concept for an episode – or, at least, the central mystery of Jackson Lake is a good concept for an episode, wedded to a more than slightly by the numbers Cyberman plot. Certainly, there’s room to explore it from various angles, from broad comedy to a more psychological approach, and to its credit The Next Doctor manages to touch on each of these angles across its hour-long runtime.

What surprised me, though, is how largely disinterested The Next Doctor actually is in Jackson Lake’s identity, dispensing with the actual mystery about 25 minutes in. Part of this comes down to the fact that Russell T Davies wasn’t especially interested in writing it as a mystery – apparently there was a draft of the script that revealed Jackson Lake’s identity after 15 minutes, with the Doctor taking his pulse – reasoning that most of the audience wouldn’t be especially invested in a mystery they’d ‘know’ was false. I wonder, idly, how true that actually is; I suppose it’s the same reasoning behind describing children in the audience as wise rather than cynical for knowing Rose Tyler wasn’t dead in Army of Ghosts, understanding how television works. But I’m not sure this occupies the same place – arguably in late 2008, with David Tennant leaving, there perhaps was scope to convince a lot of the audience that David Morrissey was going to be the next Doctor.

It’s interesting to consider what this premise might have looked like under different circumstances – if Davies had written something along these lines in place of Midnight, one of those late-season experimental pieces, or perhaps as the Doctor-lite episode for a season. (Or, indeed, if Steven Moffat had written something along these lines as one of his Christmas specials – imagine The Next Doctor in place of The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with Capaldi and Sophie Rundle taking on those roles.) Certainly, there’s scope to push it further; it’s easy to imagine the story as a quieter piece, making a broader overarching point about what it means to be the Doctor. I’d have liked that, I think – something with a grace note more along the lines of Extremis’ “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor”, perhaps?

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As it is, that’s not what The Next Doctor was – there’s no “You don’t have to be the Doctor to be the Doctor” type moment. Indeed, probably one of its more glaring flaws is the fact that Jackson Lake doesn’t get to save his own son at the end, reduced to a comparatively impotent figure next to the Doctor. It’s a bit of a shame, because it feels like the missing link in Jackson’s character arc – but it doesn’t matter too much, because David Morrissey is able to hold the whole thing together. (It’s a great performance from Morrissey, actually; he’s able to play the funny version and the quiet, struggling version of the character with ease, and knit them together into something coherent when the script can’t quite decide which one to stick with.)

Otherwise, it’s a fairly “this is an hour of Doctor Who” hour of Doctor Who. Cybermen in Victorian England, with a little bit of interesting capitalism/industrial revolution stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a driving idea in the episode. A female villain who, again, has some interesting stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a defining aspect of the piece. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwaway episode of Doctor Who, not quite here or there. I’d guess it’s probably one of the ones I’ve rewatched least, and I often found myself surprised by it – by its shape and its pace, the contours of the plot, the ideas that drove it and the eventual resolution it presented.

Given I’ve criticised the most recent series of Doctor Who in ways that could be likened to the above, it’s probably worth drawing that comparison – particularly given the fact there’s not been a Christmas special today, the first time the revived series hasn’t had one. If this is Doctor Who that’s slightly short on ideas, and doesn’t quite draw the ideas it does have together, then what sets it apart from the Doctor Who I’ve been complaining about lately? There isn’t an especially neat answer, admittedly; I think it’s just that, even as it is caught in an odd position, The Next Doctor manages to at least be consistently charming if nothing else. It’s an hour of Doctor Who made by a group of people coming off what’s arguably their most impressive achievement yet – coasting on charm has, at this point, been earned.

That, though, goes some way to explaining why The Next Doctor feels so odd. It’s not just that it’s coming as the Tenth Doctor era is coming to a close – it’s coming when the Tennant/Davies era has essentially already ended. This is just the slow start of a year-long victory lap.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Journey’s End

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It’s been good, though, hasn’t it? All of us. All of it. Everything we did. You were brilliant.

Again, I want to start with a fairly simple, straightforward declaration: I love this one. I love every part of it, even the silly parts, even the bits I don’t like that much. It’s the apex of a particular version of Doctor Who, and when I watched it the first time, it was everything to me. So, there’s a degree to which I’m not really going to budge on that, now or ever.

Admittedly, that perhaps sounds like a preamble to an “admittedly…”, but no, I really do like this one a lot. It’s an episode that is, I think, easier to talk about for its questionable moments, and I obviously will talk about them, but that’s only really because of the nature of its strengths. It’s an episode that’s so bombastic and sprawling, so confident and sure of itself, that for a lot of it you’re left with little to do but point and gesture in wordless appreciation.

The review that follows – a particularly lengthy review, actually, because I wanted to try and do something hefty for what is a pretty significant episode, but also because I happened to have a lot of thoughts on it all – comes across, I worry, as being more negative about the episode than I actually feel. Like I said, it’s the sort of episode where the good things about it felt, to me, a bit harder to write about.

That said, though, I do just want to take a moment now to talk about my favourite moment of the episode: towing the Earth back home. It’s such a brilliantly sentimental scene, with one of Murray Gold’s best pieces of music from the Davies era, and I love what it represents. I love the way Freema Agyeman makes eye contact with the camera, too – it’s a strange, Blue Peter moment, and in a way it kinda threatens the integrity of the whole thing, as though it’s about to make it a joke. But, actually, it’s different from that, because it’s letting us in on the joke, including us, as though we’re piloting the TARDIS with them. I love the strange, crazy confidence to the way the scene just stops for an obscure Gwen Cooper continuity reference.

It’s really such a brilliant, brilliant moment. It’s actually the bit that makes it all worth it, to my mind; you could probably make some reasonable arguments that bringing all the companions together like this isn’t a brilliant idea – or at least you could try, because this scene shows how absolutely wonderful that is. I really, really loved it.

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Ethically, there are bits of it that are a little sketchy. Well, that’s perhaps the wrong way of putting it (if nothing else, it creates the impression I’m talking about something else) – rather, I suspect the moral quandary supposedly at the heart of the story is somewhat ill thought out.

One of the things that Journey’s End purports to grapple with – it doesn’t really; the idea is abandoned reasonably quickly – is this idea of the Doctor as a very dark figure, the Destroyer of Worlds. Not someone who emboldens and elevates those around him, shaping their lives, inspiring and empowering them to be better people, but instead moulding them into soldiers, weapons first and foremost rather than travellers or people or Doctors themselves. In and of itself, that’s debateable; certainly, I wonder how much, outside of this episode itself, that interpretation is actually supported by the Davies era anyway. Undeniably, there’s elements of it, and it’s more obvious with characters like Martha, but… well, is it true? I’m inclined to compare it to the Capaldi era, as I so often am, where the companions were left to become Doctor figures in their own right; I wonder if perhaps that’s the same as what’s happening here, but it’s a fundamentally different vision of the Doctor here than in the Capaldi era. That’s an interesting idea to grapple with – immediately the counter argument that they’re becoming, in effect, failed versions of the Doctor, missing the point, not the full version of such, which has an interesting resonance of its own – but I think befitting its own essay rather than a few stray paragraphs here.

More to the point, though, I think it’s worth considering what the companions are turned into soldiers against: the Daleks, the ultimate robot fascists. It is… difficult to argue, to be honest, in any meaningful sense that killing Daleks is wrong particularly. Certainly, in prior contexts – the Time War, or The Parting of the Ways – the point was not about the morality of killing Daleks per se, but killing Daleks while leaving massive collateral damage. That’s definitely the case with Martha’s final solution, but that’s not really emphasised in the text, and it doesn’t seem to be a factor with the warp star or… whatever it is TenToo did with the Crucible at the end. Instead, it does seem to be a fairly basic “killing Daleks is wrong”, which strikes me as questionable. It feels mainly like a broader version of the whole punching Nazis thing – yes, that is ethically fine. Just as it is, you know, ethically fine to blow up a Dalek.

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And that… not complaint, exactly, but certainly that little curio feeds into some wider points about the episode’s spine. Well, no, I’m reluctant to call it a spine exactly, because I don’t think it is – as I’ve said above, it’s dispensed with fairly quickly. It’s more that it’s just the subject of Davros’ rant, because if the villain is going to have a rant at all, it needs to be something with a lofty ethical point to be made.

I think I’d have preferred it if, on some level, there was an effort to refute that. I think it might have held the episode together a little better thematically if… well, if at any point the Doctor had been able to turn around and say “actually, we are so different, you and I”. Or, not like that exactly, but I think taking the broader point, about the impact the Doctor has on people, and showing it actually hasbeen a positive, that he actually is different, so on. I think it’s interesting to look at Sarah Jane’s line about how the Doctor has the biggest family of anyone on Earth, because actually, it’s debateable how much the episode itself actually seems to believe that; after all, the note that’s emphasised at the end is him, alone, crying in the rain.

More on that later, though, because what I want to talk about instead is TenToo. A lot is made of the suggestion that he’s this very dark figure – born in battle, full of bloodlust, all that jazz – but I’m not wholly convinced that rings true across the episode. Certainly, he seems broadly more cheerful and adjusted throughout than the brown-suited version of the Doctor does; you can chalk bits of that up to knowing Donna isn’t dead and the TARDIS wasn’t destroyed, so TenToo certainly has reason to not be as angsty, but even then. I think a big part of this, though, is that I’m still not especially convinced that killing the Dalek empire like that is an especially difficult decision; TenToo did the right thing, and Sarah Jane’s suggestion wasn’t wrong either. Martha is a bit more questionable, but at least that’s got an element of the trolley problem to it. (My hot take: Journey’s End would’ve worked better with the Slitheen, in that regard at least.)

What I do think works, though, is TenToo leaving with Rose at the end. Certainly, it’s a difficult scene to get right, and you can understand why Russell T Davies deliberated over it so much in The Writer’s Tale; very easily, it could have been a weaker rehash of the version from Doomsday. What’s impressive, though, is the way it’s doing something much more complex; where the last version was about Rose, this is about the Doctor – he’s manipulating her and pushing her away, essentially, making a choice because he thinks he knows what’s best for her. Actually, thinking about it, there’s an interesting connection to what he does to Donna later.

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Of course, there’s also the question of Donna. I’ve been deliberating over exactly how to handle this for some time now. To be honest, I was tempted to not bring it up at all; certainly, that would have been truer to my experience of the episode the first go around, because it was years and years before I realised there was anything to discourse about at all. For the longest time my thoughts on the subject began and ended with “that’s a tragic ending, I wish there had been some way for Donna to remember” – which, to be honest, I suspect was also the beginning and end of Russell T Davies’ thoughts while writing it.

But, equally, it’d feel too much like an unspoken elephant in the room if I didn’tmention it, and that doesn’t feel like something I can go without talking about. Particularly, actually, given that my beloved Capaldi era addressed this ending directly – more than once, actually, but most obviously with Clara, my favourite companion. So, it’d be a bit dishonest not to.

For anyone who’s not aware, the discussion centres around the Doctor mindwiping Donna; the – critique feels too mild a word, and perhaps misrepresents the strength of feeling of some of those who object to it – objection (not much better) regards how he ignores her wishes, disregards her autonomy and takes something from her without her consent. Part of the contention, too, is that it’s not really problematised within the narrative enough; the focus is largely on the tragedy, and how sad it is for the Doctor, as opposed to depicting it as a horrific violation of consent. That’s… I was going to say “That’s not an unreasonable interpretation, even though it’s not what the episode intended”, which manages to be both true and missing the point; whether it’s what the episode intended or not, that is essentially what’s on screen. I’m inclined to disagree heavily with certain sections of the debate, largely those that compare it to rape; I understand where they’re coming from, in terms of it being a violation of consent, but… it doesn’t sit well with me, for myriad reasons too extensive to really delve into here.

I think it’s probably best understood as a medical procedure; even then, there’s questions to be asked, but I think that’s a better model from which to approach it. (I also think it’s worth noting, in terms of comparisons to the Capaldi era, in Hell Bent and The Pilot, where the selfish, patrician nature of the act is emphasised, it’s not to save a life, which is manifestly different to what’s going on with Donna. Just to complicate things further!) It’s not a companion exit that sits with me entirely well admittedly; it’s cruel in a lot of ways, bleakly cynical in a way that sets it apart from the tragedy of, say, Doomsday. But… it also doesn’t, in a significant way at least, diminish the episode. At least not for me. I don’t know.

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One thing that did strike me as interesting is how easily this episode could have functioned as a series finale to New Who as a whole, if the specials hadn’t been commissioned.

Granted, you’d want a few changes made throughout; the version of this episode that was an actual ending would, I think, leave Donna as the DoctorDonna – the Doctor would finally have a companion and friend who really could travel with him forever (at the same time he gave Rose a Doctor who really could live with her forever, which would’ve been neat). Also, you’d kinda want there to be more of an effort to address Davros’ accusations, as I mentioned above; Journey’s End is interesting because it feels like it comes quite close to, or could have come quite close to, addressing the whole survivor’s guilt thing, and ultimately saying “actually, no”, but then ultimately eliding that in favour of a sad ending.

(Actually, personally, I think much more telling than the actual consent violation/mindwipe aspect is the fact that Donna isn’t allowed to keep her memories once she becomes a Doctor figure – a successful Doctor figure, in marked contrast to the others, beating the Daleks by tricking them into their own trap and hoisting them by their own petard rather than an aggressively militaristic figure. But where the others are failed Doctor figures who live, Donna is… not punished, exactly, but regresses. That, I think, is the difference between Donna and Clara; where “being the Doctor” is something anyone can do in the Moffat era, “being the Doctor” is a much more singular burden to bear in the Davies era. Again, that’s another idea worth returning to, particularly because I think Moffat’s conception of what it means to be the Doctor is one of the most interesting ideas of his tenure, and it’s actually probably one of the best ways to get to the heart of the whole lonely god idea in the Davies era.)

Anyway! Gosh. When this is finished it’s going to be over 2000 words, possibly approaching 2500; certainly, the longest of any of the X Years of the X Doctor posts I’ve done over the years. Actually, no, it could well be the longest single piece I’ve written full stop. It’s probably too critical in a lot of places, and doesn’t flow the way I’d like it to; equally, though, to repeat the usual refrain, these are often just the thoughts off the top of my head after watching an episode. A lot of the thoughts above are ones I’d like to elaborate on in future, though.

So. Journey’s End. I enjoyed it massively; I think that impression might not come across from this review, much as I would’ve liked it to, because so much of it dwells on the problem areas of the episode. That’s what got me thinking, I suppose.

I did have a slightly more elegiac conclusion in mind, but I’ve just remembered that next week I’ll be doing a general Series 4 overview. So I’ll save that for then!

10/10

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The politics, passions, and people of A Very English Scandal

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One of the more interesting comments Russell T Davies made in the weeks before A Very English Scandal first aired was that he thought “both [Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe] were victims”, in a way.

It’s perhaps not immediately apparent why Davies considered Jeremy Thorpe a victim, given after all that A Very English Scandal dramatises Thorpe’s efforts to have Norman Scott killed. It’s a story of power, politics, and passion, of conspiratorial whispers in the hallowed halls of power, and Thorpe is at the very heart of that. Casting Hugh Grant was, in many way, a stroke of genius; his Thorpe isn’t just suffused with predatory menace, but, as many have noted, feels informed by his past as a charismatic romantic lead. In turn, Grant’s Thorpe is a vision of that charm, curdled into something darker – there’s an undefinable, irresistibly engaging quality about him, even knowing there’s something rotten lurking within. Declaring Norman Scott must die with as much conviction as he opposes racism in the House of Commons, or planning how to dispose of his body with the same light, casual ease as mimicking the Prime Minister, doesn’t exactly seem to support the understanding that Thorpe is anything short of a Machiavellian villain.

But, if it’s difficult to see Thorpe as a victim from the first two episodes, it’s a scene in A Very English Scandal’s closing episode that renders Davies’ point crystal clear.

I am so, so proud of this piece, I’ve got to say. Genuinely, when I’d finished it, I was absolutely beaming – I was convinced, and still am, that it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d done in quite some time.

The only thing that, admittedly, is less than stellar about it is the title. I don’t think it really conveys what it’s about, does it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure it conveys much of anything, it’s a bit… empty. Better, though, than other variations, such as “the politics, power and prejudice”.

Anyway, I’d really appreciate any shares that this one gets, because like I said, I’m extremely proud of it.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Stolen Earth

I came here when I was just a kid.

I love this one.

I also love the next one (arguably more, though I don’t tend to think of these two in discrete parts), but we’ll get to that in time.

I used to have all these Doctor Who action figures – no, collectibles – nah, action figures. A couple of David Tennants, quite a few of them missing hands; Rose from New Earth and Rose from Rose, a strange thing that looked like it was about to start a fight most of the time; Daleks, invariably missing their manipulator arms (alright, plungers) or guns or eyestalks, each one totally broken by the siblings and never by me. (That’s not, like, an attempt to talk around it or laughingly suggest it was me and I pretended it was them; it was them and they know it.) Judoon, Slitheen, Captain Jack from The Empty Child and Sarah Jane from her Adventures, complete with a little Graske, Martha from Smith and Jones and Mickey from Army of Ghosts, complete with half a Cyberman.

But, anyway, I collected them over the years, and played with them, obviously.  Always ridiculous, over the top narratives, with exterminations and resurrections and epic, galaxy-spanning stakes, and, of course, every companion ever. (Well, no, not every companion ever, because I never had a Donna figure.)

You can, I imagine, see where this is going. The Stolen Earth is Doctor Who as it always existed in my imagination, writ large across the screen. It’s sprawling and excessive and fun, Doctor Who taking joy in simply being Doctor Who. There was no way I wasn’t going to love it. Watching it at nine years old (probably) it was, genuinely, event television in a way I’d never really experienced before. Watching it ten years later, there’s still such a rush of giddy joy to it all. Across these reviews I’ve written about how I sometimes worry my opinions are based too firmly on how I first watched it, but with this one, I’m not worried about that. I know it, and I don’t care – this was the most amazing episode of Doctor Whoever then, and in more ways than one it still is now.

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There’s still, I think, a kind of… conversations about Doctor Who are still basically lead by the same types of people, and arguably in some cases the same people full stop. It’s people who grew up in the 70s, talking about Weetabix and Target novels and Tom Baker pants, and then being terribly ashamed of it all in the 80s and 90s (and in some cases still, bizarrely, carry the imagined weight of that around with them).

Less common – and to me, more interesting – is accounts of people talking about growing up under the revived series. Probably the obvious reason for that, I suppose, is that they’re mostly just not old enough yet; we’re still kinda at the point where it’s people who were teenagers when Rose aired are talking about it, as opposed to the 7 and 8-year olds. Maybe in a few years’ time we’ll start to see the stories of Cyber-strawberry frubes and Totally Doctor Who and David Tennant pants, which I would just like the record to state that I always found kinda weird and never had. Anyway, though, we’re definitely getting there. It’s something I’d like to have a go at myself one day, I suppose.

If, and when, people start getting around to it, I suspect The Stolen Earth will loom large in those accounts. It feels difficult, now, to quantify quite how big it was at the time. I remember that it was one of the last episode titles to be revealed; at that point I was following production news and stuff, albeit mainly through the Doctor Who Adventures magazine, and listing the title of episode 12 as CONFIDENTIAL (or TOP SECRET or what have you) – alongside, I think, what became The Sontaran Stratagem – really set me off. The anticipation! (Mind you, I was always pretty confused by the theory that Harriet Jones was the Supreme Dalek, though I’m pretty sure I found out about that after the fact.)

And, I mean, I’ve already said how much I loved this episode at the time. That picture of all the companions assembled together, ‘The Children of Time’, that was my computer background for years. It was then, and in many ways still is, such a wonderfully intense episode of Doctor Who, and one that’s really quite deeply bound up with the ways I watched Doctor Who at the time, the way I experienced Doctor Who, and, sure, the way I lived it.

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It still stands up today, I reckon.

The oft-repeated refrain when I write about the first part of any two-parter is, you know, that that’s quite difficult for all these reasons, which I recount mainly to fill up my own arbitrarily set wordcount, and as a bit of a caveat for the fact that I’ve not really said anything. Admittedly, a lot of this review is me talking around the fact, discussing what The Stolen Earth is and represents as opposed to anything that actually happened in it. On the flip side, though, it is mostly set-up and OMG moments and the cliffhanger of modern-Who, still yet to be topped, so maybe that’s not so bad.

Still, though. There’s a lot of great moments. The obvious bits, like any moment where Bernard Cribbins is on screen, have been rightfully discussed, but what stood out to me about this episode most of all was Elisabeth Sladen. It feels odd to say it, but she’s a much, much better actress than I ever realised –  not that I ever thought she wasn’t, or anything, but it really struck me that every emotional beat of the Dalek invasion works because of her. It’s her fear of the Daleks, at Davros, and for Luke, that makes it work – it’s genuinely the most impactful performance of the episode.

It’s quite the episode, The Stolen Earth. Quite the episode.

These days those action figures are all neatly displayed on my shelves – lovingly displayed, in fact. (I’d have to concede they’re actually maybe not that neat, and they pick up dust like mad.) I feel like maybe I should try and construct some metaphor out of that, that the things you love as a child start to hold a different place in your life as you grow up or whatever, but nah, that’s nonsense. Or it’s nonsense here, anyway.

I just wanted to tell you about them. I really love those things

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Turn Left

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What are you? What will you be?

[THE FOLLOWING IS A TRANSCRIPT FROM A VIDEO UPLOADED TO YOUTUBE ON 21ST JUNE 2018, ENTITLED “Turn Left???”]

So anyway, there I am, channel-hopping, and there’s this show on I’ve never seen before. Looks vaguely interesting – it has Catherine Tate in it, and she’s quite funny, so sure, why not. Let’s give it a watch. I’m not really doing anything else, after all, and I’m dimly aware of this show – I think some of my friends used to quite like it about a decade ago or so?

Something called doctor who.

And then I figured, hey, here’s an idea: why don’t I make a video about it? I know my videos aren’t normally about television, since I don’t watch a lot of it, but this was on my mind I guess, so I figured why not? Plus this show is kinda popular, or it used to be – my friends all stopped watching it when they cast that Benedict guy, but I know everyone was pretty excited last year when they cast Johnson from Peep Show, so maybe it’ll be popular again next year  – and I figure maybe a few enwhothiasts might wanna like this video or share it around or something.

Admittedly I didn’t entirely understand the beginning of it – I suppose they must have been on some alien planet, or something? Or was it, like, China in the future? I don’t really know what that was about, because I’ve never really seen the show, but I thought it was kinda neat that they included that instead of just having another sci-fi kinda thing. I suppose it must have meant that this show had a lot of scenes with sort of representation of other cultures, and particularly Asian cultures, so this was just another in a long line? It’d probably be a bit dodgy if it was the only one I guess, I don’t know.

… What was I saying? Oh, yeah, yeah. So one of the things I did know about this show was that they time travel a lot, which is pretty neat – if you click on this thingy here you can see a video I did about a year ago, which was all about the top five different places I’d love to time travel to if it were possible – but I was kind of a little bit confused when it happened with the beetle thingy? I always thought it was in one of those phone box things from the 1960s, like a great big blue one that’s bigger on the inside.

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But, anyway, yeah. I got the impression this was all, like, referring back to past episodes of the show, which is probably pretty exciting if you’re an enwhothiast. The idea of changing your past, or someone else changing your past which I guess is actually what happens here, is pretty interesting to me. Like, I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I didn’t do my vlogs, you know? I’ve been doing my little videos for nearly five years now – actually five years exactly tomorrow! – but what if, like, I’d done a blog, with writing and words and stuff instead? I remember my friend Rose suggested I make one ages ago, but I never did. Or I guess on a bigger level, there’s questions of, like, what if Hillary Clinton hadn’t beaten Jeb Bush in the election last year, or Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister?

Sorry I just got distracted! What was I saying?

Oh, yeah, I know. Anyway. Catherine Tate is properly amazing in this episode – it’s genuinely such a great performance, the way she moves from being a more sort of comic character at the beginning, a bit like her character in her own show, but then gradually becoming a much more tragic figure. A lot of that is because of that kind of rise of fascism and stuff, that sweeping force that’s going on in the background and affecting all their lives.

I think – though obviously, not really being involved in any enwhothiast communities or anything, I don’t know for sure – that probably one of the most talked about scenes of this episode is that one where it’s Mr Colasanto being taken away by the army, and Donna gradually realises that he’s being taken to a concentration camp. Like, it’s definitely a really powerful scene – Bernard Cribbins sells it so well, it’s a great performance – but perhaps what’s more notable is the way that, in the next scene, Donna is still going to the army to try and find a job.

It’s a moment of quiet defeat, that, and it feels like it’s perhaps the episode’s most incisive observation about the nature of fascism. You can argue, perhaps fairly, that one of the big flaws of the episode is that the thing that finally motivates Donna to step up isn’t one of the small human moments, but the existential mythic threat of the stars going out, but I’d argue it actually ties back to that moment where Donna goes to the military for jobs, a comment on the same sort of apathy.

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Soo, yeah. I hope you liked this video! Please don’t forget to like and subscribe and leave a comment below – I could do some more Doctor Who videos if you enjoyed this one! Maybe a series? Like, I could start them next year for the anniversaries, eleven years since the episode was done or something like that.

Wait, what’s that noise…?

[TRANSCRIPT ENDS.]

So, Turn Left.

It’s an episode that’s all about an alternate reality – a world where a significant event didn’t happen, and the repercussions that has, the tornado caused by the beating of a butterfly’s wing. A reality without the Doctor, or a reality without watching Doctor Who; a reality where fascism is on the rise and internment camps are built, and a reality where fascism is still on the rise and internment camps are still being built, except also I have a blog instead of being a vlogger.

I don’t know, mostly I thought this was a funny little gimmick. It’s perhaps not as insightful as it might have been – hey, when are they ever? – but it struck me as a broadly funny idea. Probably one that would have been better if some actual time and thought had gone into it – if I’d had the idea early enough, I totally would have done an actual vlog, or at least made sure the “character” of vlogger Alex in the above transcript was a little more consistent throughout.

Still! Turn Left. A pretty brilliant episode. Possibly, admittedly, a little too dark in places – the death of Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde and Maria was quite upsetting – but it works throughout. A fantastic script from Russell T Davies (it’ll be interesting to see him return to some of these ideas with Years and Years in 2019) and, as the other Alex mentioned, a wonderful performance from Catherine Tate. Arguably her finest hour, in fact.

Can’t wait for next week!

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Midnight

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Because I’m clever.

So, something of an on-and-off theme of these reviews has been an attempt to re-evaluate past episodes of Doctor Who. Not necessarily because I think they need re-evaluation, or even because I think my re-evaluation would be especially important; there are, after all, a couple of other people who have written a few things about Doctor Who, to say the least. No, it’s much more of a personal re-evaluation, based on the contrast between the opinions I’ve held since first watching them, and the opinion I’d form as someone who is now ostensibly a TV critic. (Which still feels weird to say.)

But the other part of that is the question as to whether or not I can bring any level of critical insight to these episodes, or if they’re too bound up with the nostalgia and sentiment of my first viewing to be able to actually engage with them on that level. It’s something that’s come up a few times over the course of these reviews, and it is something I worry about; I do suspect that my reviews of Tennant era Who are fundamentally weaker than, say, the writing I’ve done about the Capaldi era in no small part because of the way I first watched them.

Which makes this episode something of an interesting limit point to that perspective. I’ve spoken a few times about how I basically always enjoyed every single episode of Doctor Who when I watched them a decade ago; they were, to me, pretty much perfect. (Which, again, has been part of the question with some of these reviews: do I only like it because I’m still viewing it with rose tinted glasses?)

Midnight, though, is the first episode of Doctor Who I didn’t actually like. I do quite keenly remember that, actually, and my reaction after it ended – that sort of sense of “is that it?”, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with it all. Specifically, if I remember correctly, it didn’t feel like the episode had gone for a full forty-five minutes – there was a sense that all we’d seen was the preamble and set-up, and the episode as a whole had been lacking in incident. There were no monsters!

Hence, anyway, the question I had in mind with this one – since it’s a very popular episode, and on an intellectual level I sort of ‘knew’ this would be one I ‘should’ like – was whether or not I’d like it, or still be stuck with the same mindset as before.

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Obviously, yeah, I did like it.

Which does sort of make sense. One of the things about Midnight, which I don’t think anyone would dispute, is that it’s definitely one of the more mature and experimental episodes of the series; it’s aimed more at the older segment of the audience, arguably, rather than the eight-year-olds. (Indeed, if I remember correctly, I think it’s something Russell T Davies was worried about  Which isn’t really a bad thing, and even then it’s not actually that simple – I imagine there were quite a lot of eight-year-olds who loved it because it was creepy and atmospheric. I think really I’m just trying to defend my relatively unrefined taste a decade ago. Whoops.

Anyway, yes, it was very good. It’s a great script from Russell T Davies, though it does feel rather atypical amongst his Who work; it’s not a unique observation to note, in fact, that it’s actually a rather direct inversion of Voyage of the Damned, looking at the worst of people in a difficult situation. I don’t think I’d be inclined to call it Davies’ best script – not because it isn’t good, but because it feels so different from his work in general, that much of what I like about Davies scripts is absent. In that sense, I suppose, I’d definitely be inclined to call it a great script by Davies, if not necessarily a great Davies script (even though that is splitting hairs in more than a few slightly unnecessary ways, and probably missing some nuance in terms of Davies’ wider career).

It’s worth singling out, of course, David Tennant and Lesley Sharp. In a lot of ways, this is an episode that feels well-tailored to Tennant and his Doctor; not just in terms of his use of language and speech, but his arrogance and assumed authority. (This is something that’s true of most, if not all, Doctors to a certain extent, but it feels like it’s especially the case with Tennant, or at least that Midnight approaches this in a way that’s specifically relevant to Tennant.) Lesley Sharp, too, shines throughout – I was going to say she does an impressive job, but really, that’s selling her short. The episode lives or dies on the basis of her performance; a big part of why it’s as good as it is is because she is as good as she is. It’s genuinely, really impressive stuff.

Both of the above points, though, are things that basically everyone has said about Midnight. Often less remarked upon, though, is Alice TroughtonMidnight is a really well-directed piece; it’s atmospheric, yes, but decidedly non-showy about it. There’s a subtlety to the direction, and a confidence to it too; it helps hold the episode together, giving the performances and the sound direction and so on space to breathe and be impactful.

So, yeah, Midnight is pretty great.

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What did strike me as being interesting about Midnight, actually, is that there’s a very post-2016 reading to it all.

A character I found myself paying a lot of attention to was Professor Hobbes. Something he does a lot is try and position himself as an authority, insisting over and over again that what he knows is correct, despite the facts that are right in front of him. He’s a parallel to the Doctor, both in terms of his profession and the meta quirk of his casting, but where the Doctor is trying to learn new things and so on, Hobbes is trying to shut them down, insistent he already knows everything. Note also how he keeps shutting down Dee Dee whenever she offers a new idea, or speaks on something she does actually know about.

Also significant, I felt, was Biff Kane, the father character. If you look at his dialogue, he keeps referring back to a certain type of masculinity; he really resents the implication (or, what he assumes is the implication) that he’s a “coward”, and when he’s trying to get the Professor to help him throw the Doctor out of the bus he asks him “what kind of a man are you?”, which says a lot about what he values, and that strain of toxic masculinity. Look also at his wife Val, and that line about “immigrants”.

Essentially, though, when Russell T Davies wrote an episode about the ugliness of people, and the damage of the kind of mob mentality, it starts to feel very reminiscent of the things that prompted Brexit – that rejection of experts, that strain of xenophobia, so on and so forth. This is still a bit of a half-formed idea; I’d like to, and actually do intend to once I’ve finished these weekly posts, return to the idea and write a more considered article on “Doctor WhoMidnight, and Brexit”, actually taking the time to analyse it and consider it rather than offering a few off-the-cuff thoughts.

Ultimately, though, Midnight is in fact very good, and people were always right to love it. It’s a massively, massively impressive piece of television, and even though I didn’t get it at the time, a decade later this is exactly the sort of thing I want to see from Doctor Who.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Partners in Crime

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The fat just walks away…

Alright, so. Those of you who’ve been following this series since the start – even if it is, you know, only the one of you – might be wondering where the Series 3 roundup post is. The answer is more than a little bit underwhelming: I had a near-catastrophic computer failure not long after I was supposed to upload that piece (though it was more than a little late anyway) and I’ve just kept delaying it ever since. The plan was to publish it a little bit before this review, but I got my dates mixed up – I thought Partners in Crime had aired on April 12th ish – so that ended up being difficult. I’ll probably post it in a week or so, maybe.

(Note: I never did that, but I restored it to its proper place when I moved to WordPress.)

As to the rest of you, you might perhaps be wondering what this is. They’re reviews, but also, they’re not. Really, it’s a series that’s just as much about my experience of watching the episodes the first time around as it is the episodes themselves – I’d call it a personal history via Doctor Who, but that is probably overstating it more than a little bit in terms of exactly how personal it is. But it’s very much contextualising the review in terms of my memories of the episode, my own experiences in terms of being a fan since then – there’s opinions and hopefully a degree of insight, maybe, but it’s not exactly academic. Often, it’s about that gulf between a decade old memory, and the more measured approach of someone who’s ostensibly a television critic, but generally speaking I’m pretty positive about it all anyway (series 4 contains The First Episode of Doctor Who I Actually Disliked – which you won’t guess – so that should potentially be an interesting review).

What’s notable though, I suppose, is that Series 4 is probably the stretch of modern Who I’m least familiar with – with the exception of maybe Series 6 – which is a result of both the length of time since broadcast, and the fact that I didn’t have them on DVD, so never really re-watched them. In a sense, then, while I’m not coming to the episodes fresh, they’re pieces of television that I know much better in terms of the paratext that’s sprung up around them – most notably The Writer’s Tale, which I re-read every few months anyway. It was definitely something I was quite conscious of while rewatching episode; I’m really, really unfamiliar with a lot of the basic visual grammar of the episode, how the different set pieces are structured, and so on. There’s a version of it that I’d built in my head, but often that was quite different from what was actually on screen.

So, all of that said, let’s talk about Partners in Crime.

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The obvious part of this episode that bears discussing is Donna – who’s still one of the most popular companions Doctor Who has ever had, even ten years later, which is a real testament to Catherine Tate and Russell T Davies. (I believe it was TARDIS Eruditorum that posited that you could more readily divide Davies’ tenure into the Rose and Donna eras than by Doctors, which is very true.)

As a reintroduction to Donna after The Runaway Bride, it’s very effective. I know there was a degree of trepidation – to put it lightly – about the character returning full time (for my part, I was very positive, but then I was positive about essentially everything about Doctor Who at the time) but it’s actually a really good concept for a Doctor Who companion. It’s a little bit like those astronauts who came back to Earth, but couldn’t readjust to life once again – the ones who failed to walk in the dust and so on. It’s also, of course, very in tune with the ideas at the heart of the Davies era: that the Doctor changes people, emboldening them and enriching their lives. In a sense it comes back to the conversation Rose has with Mickey and Jackie in The Parting of the Ways; what we see with Donna here is almost a version of what could have happened if Rose didn’t find her way back to the Doctor. Doing that with a character we know and already recognise is a great way to approach it – we’ve seen the starting point, we’ve seen the refusal, so we know that backstory. It also – not to get ahead of myself – ties in quite well with Donna’s departure, in the end, given how it plays upon those ideas of the Doctor’s influence.

And, of course, the parallels drawn between the Doctor and Donna in the episode (the Doctordonna, if you want to read it as foreshadowing) drive this home further. It’s not that the character is defined in terms of him, exactly – certainly, in Donna’s first appearance, she was defined as an opposite figure – but that on her post-Doctor life, and the attempts to find him again, Donna’s become something of a Doctor-analogue herself. She operates in the same way as him, their outfits mirror one another, she’s even got the blue car; in that sense, it’s quite similar to how Moffat presented his companions towards the end of his run. I suspect when the time comes to talk about Journey’s End I’ll find myself writing about Clara, but it’s interesting to pick up on how, even at this point, you’ve got Donna being positioned as akin to the Doctor – and how her story followed that path, and where it ended up.

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Another aspect of this episode I quite liked was the Adipose – they’re very manifestly not the typical series opener monsters, and it’s good to subvert the standards we’re used to. There’s something quite refreshing about how they’re not the straightforward antagonists of the Judoon or the Autons. Davies’ series opener episodes generally tended to be quite broad, and in a way the Adipose/Miss Foster combination feel like that approach taken to the furthest point: the creature is secondary to the Doctor and Donna’s plotline, and there’s very little focus on the eventual resolution of such. Indeed, there’s a couple of moments where the actual narrative plot is quite… not slapdash, that’s unfair, but it’s very obvious that Davies simply isn’t that interested in the mechanics of it.

Aside from that, they Adipose are quite a neat concept on their own – they tap into a lot of ideas about body image and so on, and they’re kinda cute in a way. I’d be quite interested in seeing them return at some point, actually; it feels like there’s a certain versatility to them that means you could still do a lot of different stories with them. Definitely, there would have been some potential for them in Class, with a story about anorexia and drug addiction. What’s also interesting about that, though, is how it highlights that a lot of Partners in Crime could still fit in Doctor Who (or associated) today; indeed, interesting to consider the episode in light of later ones, particularly the criticisms Moffat’s pacing – something like Partners in Crime really rollicks along, in a way that wouldn’t feel massively out of place even during series 7.

Ultimately, then, I quite enjoyed this episode. It’s an entertaining piece, and an effective re-introduction to Donna. Hopefully, subsequent episodes shouldn’t creep up on me the same way this one did, so I’ll try and write some stuff that’s at least a little more insightful!

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Voyage of the Damned

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I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives, and all six billion people on the planet below.

Yes, it’s a Christmas special review – but probably not the one you were expecting.

Long-ish term readers, of which I’m sure I have at least three, will probably remember this on and off series of retrospectives where I look back on and review whatever David Tennant was up to a decade ago. It is largely but not exclusively filtered through the lens of my own personal recollections – i.e. that of a small child who was only vaguely aware of who Kylie actually was and really wished that everyone would just stop talking during Doctor Who, though I suppose that’s really not all that different to me today.

The three of you who have been following this for a while probably have also noticed that I never quite got around to posting my full season retrospective on Series 3; a combination of procrastination, nominally important exams, and near-catastrophic computer failure meant that those kept getting postponed to the point that it never quite materialised. Currently, the plan is to write that up – or finish writing it up, half the document still exists somewhere I believe – between now and April, which I believe is when I’ll start reviewing series 4 (I’m not entirely clear on the dates off the top of my head).

And, of course, for those of you who are more interested in the more pressing and current issue of the day – Twice Upon a Time, ahh! – I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get something written about that in the next few days. More likely than not it’ll be something of a commentary on the Twelfth Doctor’s era as a whole, rather than a straightforward review as such; I’m still hoping to do a series of reviews on all of Capaldi’s episodes between now and Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, so we’ll see how that all shakes out.

In any case, though, I suspect I’ve probably waffled on enough to fill up the wordcount. Let’s get onto Voyage of the Damned.

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A big part of these Tenth Doctor reviews has been a re-examination of the wider perception of an episode, and how that contrasts with my own memories of such. It’s not exactly a perfect process; a decade on, my memory of it all is usually fairly shake-y, and I didn’t exactly have massively sophisticated opinions beyond “It’s Doctor Who, of course I love it!” (some would contend that my opinions have not yet developed beyond this). There’s also the fact that, generally speaking, I tend to be comparing said opinions to standard fan myopia – the accepted rules that incorrectly state, for example, that Love & Monsters is rubbish.

Interestingly, though, this time there’s the opportunity to take a slightly different tack. Famously, this is the Doctor Who episode with the highest domestic viewing figures of all time; seen by 13.9 million viewers, you can make the case that this is probably the resounding impression of Tennant’s Doctor left across the country. It received pretty positive reviews overall (even if it did offend certain Christians and a survivor of the Titanic) and, per Wikipedia, received an “Appreciation Index rating of 86 (“excellent”), above the average score of 77 for drama programmes, and was the highest Index rating for any programme shown on terrestrial television on Christmas Day”. Just to contextualise that in terms of the rest of the show, that’s better than Father’s Day, equal to The Eleventh Hour, and just shy of Journey’s End. Now, the numbers shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value on their own, but it’s worth remembering that on release the episode got largely rave reviews from most mainstream outlets.

In short, then, this episode is largely beloved. Or, if not beloved, certainly it’s one which is generally held in quite high regard by quite a lot of people. And that certainly runs counter to the traditional fan belief that it’s a duff episode, doesn’t it?

All of which is to say that it’s worth finding something to love in this episode; after all, in amongst every episode you’re not so sure about there’s something that someone’s going to enjoy. Watching it back again today, I couldn’t help but think the opening was really nice, and very Doctor Who; a simple moment of enjoyment, where the Doctor just throws himself into it all with gleeful abandon, poking around and making friends and having fun. It felt like a nice reminder of what it’s (sort of) all about, in contrast to recent years where the focus has been a little more on the ‘Doctor of War’ (or even a contrast to distant years of the Time Lord Victorious!) than on this sort of thing.

Voyage of Damned doctor who review tenth doctor david tennant kylie minogue hosts walkway strut fight halo disaster movie

Granted, though… well, it’s not without flaws. Much as I enjoyed it back in the day – and, don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly entertaining now – and as much as I still think it’s worth highlighting what was good about it and what worked about it, there’s still a few noteworthy issues.

Part of the benefit of rewatching these episodes with a decade’s worth of hindsight is the new perspective – more specifically, though, the perspective of someone who pretends to be a professional television critic, and wants to pretend to be a professional television writer. Plus, it’s also that of someone who’s read a lot of books about Doctor Who, and the production of it – in this specific case, it’s having read The Writer’s Tale, and knowing about the difficulties Russell T Davies had writing this episode.

Davies was right, I think, to be concerned about the disaster movie format fighting with the Doctor Who format. The easiest flaw to point out is structural; where disaster movies tend to pick off the cast one by one, Voyage of the Damned more or less just disposes with a large chunk of them all in one lengthy set-piece. It doesn’t exactly work, dividing the episode into two slightly disjointed halves. On top of that, though, there’s the feeling that maybe none of it quite lands – that tonally, as it swings from tragedy to broad humour, the impact doesn’t always register. (And I don’t think that’s a rule, as such, rather that it just doesn’t quite work here.) Arguably, in a way, that makes it feel darker – as the loses aren’t quite acknowledged, the moments of levity feel out of place, leaving it all just a little bit grim. Part of the issue feels difficult to articulate exactly, because it’s not really one thing that’s wrong – rather, there’s lots of nice moments and fun details that don’t exactly add up to the potential sum of their parts. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as perhaps it could have.

But, I suppose, it returns to another little fact from The Writer’s Tale – an anecdote where a journalist describes Voyage of the Damned as being fun. They meant it dismissively, but you know what? It is fun. And there’s a place for that – especially at Christmas.

7/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Last of the Time Lords

last of the time lords doctor who review title card sequence russell t davies colin teague john simm david tennant freema agyeman

Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.

For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.

And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.

Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.

That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.

last of the time lords doctor who review john simm the master the valiant old doctor david tennant russell t davies colin teague series 3

Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.

The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.

To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.

A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.

It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)

There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.

Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.

last of the time lords doctor who review martha jones freema agyeman martha leave david tennant tenth doctor russell t davies colin teague

Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.

In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.

Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.

I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.

(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)

It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.

I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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